What is the game, anyway? I’ve seen David Fincher’s The Game a number of times now, and I’m still not really sure. Where does the game begin and where does the game end? And how do you even describe the game? Usually in these articles I’ll try to give a synopsis of the film we’re discussing in an attempt to fill in some of the gaps for readers that might not have seen the film. But in the case of The Game, I’m not sure how to go about issuing you a summation that makes any sense. Michael Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, a coldhearted and cutthroat investment banker. For his forty-eighth birthday his brother Conrad (Sean Penn) gives him a gift certificate for “the game,” a “game” put on by the mysterious and ominous-sounding Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). Douglas then plays the game, and supposedly wins. And that’s about it—not too helpful a description, I’m sure. That is, incidentally, the spoiler-free version; the spoiled version improves only marginally upon that. (This article, by the way, will spoil the film throughout.)
I suppose I might begin by noting this: there is no point in taking The Game literally. Though it has all the look of a complex psychological thriller, the film’s script reveals itself as absurdly thin upon close examination. Look too thoroughly and it may disappear from sight altogether. Consider this: Nicholas participates in the game willingly, and confronts all the challenges presented to him. But there are a virtually infinite number of outcomes that could have occurred at any of the game’s many junctures. Nicholas could simply have fled, or he could have gone to the police, or he could have committed suicide. CRS could not have planned for every possible occurrence, but the film asks us to accept that did and that everything worked without a hitch.
There’s no reason why we should accept that, and we don’t, but it doesn’t matter anyway—I’m quite certain that director David Fincher was not too concerned with maintaining a consistent logic. There’s nothing to be gained from chasing a literal interpretation of this film, and that’s why we can brush off these difficulties as immaterial. Most other films would be dismissed outright if they had plot holes as big as The Game’s, and yet The Game is still a fine work. That’s because what we are really driven to consider are the thematic issues the film presents us with. The central concern here is what The Game is in the abstract. I find it difficult to give any concrete answer, because the game itself is bulletproof. As noted, it all goes off without a hitch; you could easily argue that CRS had planned for any number of contingencies and I would have no way to disprove (or prove) that. We can’t differentiate between reality and the world CRS engineered. In a very real sense, Nicholas could be living in The Truman Show, flitting about without ever knowing his world is a snow globe. Similarly, it’s impossible to prove that the game ever ends. For all we (and Nicholas) know it could go on forever.
Together we could come up with tens of unique interpretations of what the game might be. Here’s one that I find interesting but that I don’t favor: the game as a story of rebirth, specifically as a parallel of the gospels of the New Testament. This is outlined in The AV Club’s retrospective on the film; in short, here the game is seen as a religious metaphor, as Nicholas “dies” and is “reborn,” presumably as a new and better man. He wakes up in a coffin in a graveyard in Mexico. The experience must be humbling for the multimillionaire—penniless, in dirty and tattered clothes, needing to rely on the kindness of strangers as broke as he. When the game is done he is a new man—a bit bemused perhaps, but relaxed, happy, and visibly different. That’s as much as one can be reincarnated without actually dying first. But I don’t like this conception of the game. It seems like far too trite a conclusion. So the game exists just to make Nicholas a better person? Can such a cunning film really have so saccharine a rationale behind it? (At the very least, the references to Christianity are interesting enough to stand on their own, at least without all the feel-good ‘I’m a better person now!’ angle.)
I see the game as a nightmare. Of course, Nicholas is not asleep, but in every other sense he has descended into some unreal, fantastical horror. Just as you feel you’ll never wake from a nightmare, it’s apparently impossible to escape the game. Similarly, it seems that the game has no end, just like nightmares feel like they go on forever. Threats come from every nook and cranny of the world in the game, completely at random, almost impossibly, as if your brain had imagineered them—Nicholas walks down a side street and out comes a disheveled man that appears to be suffering a heart attack. Saving him triggers a chain of planned events eventually leading to Nicholas being trapped in an elevator. The game manifests without any rhyme or reason, just like pink elephants and assassins and Homer Simpson or any other random object might suddenly appear in our dreams. This is very much a real life nightmare. Sure, it’s staged, but so are dreams. We might think the game is fake—we might even be aware that it is fake—but it feels real, and that’s the only thing that matters for the duration that we are trapped in it.
Fincher plays as many tricks on us as the game does on Nicholas. His greatest sleight of hand is that he gives us the correct answer at the very beginning and then convinces us that he was lying. From the outset we are told that the game is really just a game, just as the CRS folks say, and that it will indeed have a happy ending—all true. But no one watching the film for the first time believes this; we believe that the threats to Nicholas’ life (and livelihood) are actually real. The film throws so much chaff at us that we can’t accept that the game is an illusion. Given that, the film is really just a ninety-minute long red herring bookended by ten minutes of preamble and debriefing. ‘This thing feels real?’ Fincher says, laughing in our faces. ‘Well, it’s not.’
But the director goes further still in gaming his audience. Watching The Game, I feel just as paranoid and anxious as its protagonist does. This is something that I have heard others express as well—this curious, palpable feeling that we’re in some bad space, that something is wrong. It’s almost as if the paranoia Nicholas feels is seeping through the television set (or cinema screen) out toward us. And in a sense that’s true, because Fincher directs the film in a way that makes us uncomfortable. Most of the scenes take place indoors, typically inside tight, confined areas like hotel rooms or elevators. The environments have a certain aesthetic—not futurist per se, but certainly modernist, and in some cases even postmodernist (CRS’ office space is a glass and metal enclosure, for instance—very Bonaventure). The exterior scenes offer us no respite because they almost exclusively occur at night. The world is dark and imposing. It opens up momentarily for the short time spent in Mexico, but even then the place is curiously rendered—oversaturated and with too light a palette compared to the dark city, almost as if it’s supposed to blind us.
Fincher acts against us in other ways as well, so much so that I wonder if the film is just a reflection of his role as the director. Perhaps the most telling moment is when Nicholas enters Christine’s house to discover that everything is built like a movie set: bookcases are lined with cut-away books, drawers and closets are empty, and the fridge is bare. In fact, the set analogy could be taken literally—Christine points out that there is a camera in the room and that CRS is monitoring them. Could Fincher be examining his role as a film director by playing a game with the audience? Is it actually us he is toying with? The film is consistent with this explanation. In fact, this actually explains some of The Game’s faults; for instance, some critics charged that Michael Douglas’ character is underdeveloped—all we really know is that Nicholas is an investment banker, and that he witnessed his father commit suicide—but one could argue that Fincher made Nicholas plain so that the audience could put themselves in his shoes. He’s a blank slate that we reflect ourselves on. By contrast, flesh Nicholas out too much and he becomes independent, separate from us. If we’re meant to project onto Nicholas, then the game is really against us.
There are a bevy of mysteries here, and as you might imagine, the film loses some of its magic with repeated viewings. That’s just the nature of a thriller like this. Once we know that the game is actually just a game, just like Fincher told us at the beginning, we’re never fooled again. The Game is almost a one-time use film, but I get tremendous enjoyment just from watching Fincher pull the strings and twist the story round and round. It tends to get lost underneath Fincher’s other top works, particularly Seven and Fight Club, but I think The Game does punch above its weight. Just how deep does the game go? Thinking about the film is even more fun than watching it—and that’s a rare and positive feat. Next week, another fifteen-year-old film: L.A. Confidential.